When we arrived in Japan four months ago, I knew that I would of course continue to cook Western food (洋食, youshoku) but wanted to dive right into Japanese food as well (和食, washoku—和/wa is the oldest Japanese word for “Japan” and still appears in words like wagyu, i.e. super expensive artisal Japanese beef).
However, this ferverous intention was thwarted first of all by the delayed arrival of our kitchen equipment, then the approximately seven typhoons that struck the island in our first six weeks, and finally by my abject illiteracy in the local grocery stores.
But even as weather and language lessons began to cooperate with my culinary ambitions, I was checked by the unexpected unavailability, or extreme price, of certain ingredients. For instance, celery is crazy expensive in Japan, which may explain why it tends to be packaged one stalk at a time! And though milk, butter, and yogurt are available and not too pricy—though sour cream and buttermilk appear to be nonexistent—they cost so much more than, say, tofu (29¥ a box, which is about a quarter) or beansprouts (19¥), that said dairy products got mentally transferred from the category of “daily necessity” to “luxury items.
What particularly afflicted me, though, was the matter of cauliflower and yuzu. Cauliflower is a fairly recent addition to the Japanese diet, like dairy, but in August even though you could get it the version thereof was tiny, straggly, and pathetic, and furthermore at an astronomical price—four or five bucks for something that you could almost enclose in your fist. In view of cheap mizuna and cucumbers and Napa cabbage, such an indulgence could not be justified.
I could forgive Japan for not having adequate cauliflower, but where was the yuzu? Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit, something like a spherical lemon with an intense and amazing fragrance. I’d never seen it fresh anywhere on the planet, which was to be expected everywhere on the planet but Japan—but not in Japan, either? I found jars of juice, the equivalent of lemon-shaped bottle of lemon juice and similarly lacking the zing of the fresh product, or freeze-dried peel, which did not tempt me. I resigned myself to deleting these items from my repetoire.
And then came—November.
Ah, November, ye olde foe. As long as I can remember, November has been a grim reality to be endured. It is dark but not yet Christmas, cold but not yet snowy, overcast but the brightly colored leaves of autumn have been reduced to piles of brown by jealous October. At least in February there is hope it will soon be over. November is the harbinger of, as a French colleague once put it, “ze bad time.”
November in Japan is nothing like that! It is extrordinary! Gorgeous! Cool but not cold, with the possibility yet of warm days. Plenty of green remains but the ginkgos turn yellow and the maples turn red and there are even seasonal flowers that bloom in response to the shortening days!
And—it is cauliflower and yuzu season.
So from utter paucity we dove into overflow. The farm stands tucked between the densely packed family homes and the vending machines (!) one one side or the other of the numerous tiny city farms are stocked with the very freshest, picked-that-morning-produce: huge heads of pristine cauliflower and bags and bags of yuzu, to say nothing of the persimmons, kiwi, broccoli, daikon radish, turnips, potatoes, hot chiles, diminutive bell peppers, cabbage…
And even though the sun barely breaks over the trees behind our house even at midday—our solar noon is around 11 am, due to Japan’s wonky time zone—it is a bright and beautiful month. An unexpected gift from our new home. I can hardly wait for next November.
In the meantime, for those who’d like to taste it from afar, here’s what I made with the bounty.
Deep-Fried Cauliflower with Fast Yuzu Koshou
Admittedly, the whole drama here was that yuzu can’t be had outside Japan. But the principle will work with any citrus: take your pick of zests to pound with chilis and salt, and you’ll have an amazing condiment. I suspect grapefruit would be the closest approximation, but lemon would work just as well. Officially yuzu koshou is supposed to ferment before using, but it’s pretty good just fresh out of the bowl.
1 perfect head of cauliflower, florets broken up into 2” or smaller pieces
oil for deep-frying (I like peanut oil best, but in Japan they always use canola)
rind of 1 yuzu, lemon, or half a grapefruit, removed with a vegetable peeler, avoiding the white pith as much as possible
1 small hot chili, red or green
½ tsp. flaky sea salt
Pour oil into a small pot to reach about 2/3 of the way up the side, or deep enough to accommodate your largest piece of cauliflower. Affix a food thermometer (this is really essential for deep-frying) and let it heat to 350° F. Drop in two to four pieces of cauliflower. It will bubble fiercely as the moisture works its way out, but be patient and in a few minutes you will have beautiful even browning all over. You really don’t need the breading for it to work! Remove the pieces with tongs, let the heat come back to 350° F if it has dropped, and continue until all the cauliflower is cooked. Let drain on paper towels.
Meanwhile (or ahead of time if you prefer), slice the rind strips finely, then turn the knife and give a number of good chops to get pretty fine dice. Slice the chili into very thin disks. Scrape both into a mortar—or even better, a suribachi, the grooves of which pulverize ingredients way more effectively than a Western mortar & pestle do—add the salt, and pound away until you have a nice paste. It doesn’t have to be perfectly smooth.
To serve, scrape the paste into a bowl and toss with the cauliflower. Serve right away and dream of November!